Renee Converse can still picture her 12-year-old daughter, slim and sun-kissed, waving goodbye out the back window of a Pasco County school bus. It was a Friday and the last time she would see her brown-eyed, firstborn girl.
A quarter-century after the murder of Jennifer Odom, her mother remembers how much she loved her Springer spaniel, Gypsy, and how she giggled with a gang of girlfriends while dressing up for a middle school dance.
Six days after she disappeared in 1993, detectives located Jennifer’s body — naked, facedown and severely decomposed in a Hernando County orange grove. Since then, they have amassed nearly 1,000 pieces of evidence, taken thousands of tips, done hundreds of interviews and clocked tens of thousands of hours building a case file 75,000 pages thick. They’ve questioned nearly 100 people of interest. As late as 2013, Hernando County assigned a deputy full-time to Jennifer’s case.
Jennifer’s death so long ago shook local communities rooted in family and faith. The question of what happened to her still weighs heavy on the minds of those living there.
And on investigators.
“I think they would have done anything in the world to have solved this case,” Renee said, including the current lead detective.
“He is very hopeful that he is going to be able to find the missing piece that is going to pull all of this together and help us find a resolution with Jennifer and who did this to her.”
• • •
The day Jennifer went missing dawned crisp but not quite cold. She dressed in jeans and a turtleneck, both white. She pulled a red cashmere sweater — a gift from her grandmother — over her shoulder-length, chestnut hair.
Then she laced up a pair of black boots and got into the car with her mother. The two drove 200 yards up the winding lime-rock driveway to wait for the school bus near their mailbox at the intersection of Jessamine and Jim Denney roads.
It was a weekday morning ritual that gave them time to talk. On that day, Renee and the honor roll student discussed math.
When the bus came, Jennifer climbed aboard and took her usual spot on the back seat. That way, she and her mother could see each other until their routes diverged when Renee turned left to head to work.
“She would always wave goodbye to me,” Renee said.
About 4 p.m., Jennifer’s 9-year-old sister, Jessica, arrived to find their house locked and empty. Normally, Jennifer made it home from school around 3 p.m. Jessica called her mother.
Panicked, Renee phoned her daughter’s best friend, Michelle, who told her she had seen Jennifer get off the bus.
“Right then, I knew. I knew it was bad,” Renee said, choking on her words. “And it was bad.”
• • •
A stack of old photographs Renee keeps tucked away depict the picture-perfect childhood her daughters shared on their 15-acre family property in St. Joseph, a small community west of Dade City.
The rural neighborhood where Renee and her husband, Clark, settled was dotted with orange groves and occupied mostly by extended family. It was a playground for Jennifer and Jessica — as much friends as sisters. Together, they built forts, rode four-wheelers and spent summer days swimming in the creek behind their house.
“Full of life,” is how Renee remembers Jennifer, a seventh-grader.
She was a barefoot water-skier, once rated the seventh-best in the country for her age. Again and again, Jennifer placed in tournaments. Often, she was the skier who climbed to the top of the human pyramid gliding atop the water.
Three days before she disappeared, Jennifer marched with the Thomas E. Weightman Middle School band, playing the clarinet.
The mother of two outgoing girls, Renee said she taught them how to stay safe if they encountered trouble on their walk home, how to spot the “dangers of life.”
“Zig-zag the orange grove,” she told them. “I can find you in the orange grove.”
• • •
Jennifer’s frigid body was found on a Thursday morning about 600 feet off Powell Road, in an abandoned orange grove about 10 miles from her home.
The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head. Detectives said she likely died there in the woods, not long after her abduction.
As word spread, the hundreds of searchers became mourners. Crisis counselors visited Jennifer’s school, which held a moment of silence after the principal read a scripture. A local supermarket donated boxes of tissues for students, sobbing and scared.
Classmate Danae Ciccone remembers it all — the search crews combing the orange grove between their houses, the somber trip to school the Monday after Jennifer disappeared.
When she learned Jennifer’s body was found, she collapsed to the floor. She was 13.
“It was my first encounter with danger, with evil,” Ciccone said recently.
Now a mother of two married to a Hernando sheriff’s deputy, she said her children never have — and never will — ride the school bus.
“Even though it was 25 years ago, it is very fresh,” Ciccone said, recalling counseling she underwent in the years that followed. “It just really destroyed me for a long time.”
She wasn’t alone.
Pasco and Hernando communities — otherwise sleepy and seemingly safe — were shaken. Calls flooded into radio stations and law enforcement agencies. Pastors and parents preached child safety.
“This truly is God’s country, or at least it was until some criminal invaded it,” the Rev. Paul Romfh said at the time. The pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Dade City, Romfh baptized Jennifer — and buried her.
“There is a sickness on our land,” he said.
Suspects in the case came and went, but none stuck. Other than the evidence found in the woods, the only clue investigators had was one given by students on the bus: A faded blue pickup was parked at the stop when Jennifer got off, alone.
• • •
A former New York City detective, George Loydgren came to work for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office in 2005. It wasn’t long until he heard about Jennifer.
She was the talk of the agency, he said. And still, “anywhere you go and you mention her name, people’s heads snap and turn right away.”
Over time, detectives tried everything. They looked to similar killings for clues, stopped hundreds of blue trucks, erected billboards and offered cash rewards. In 1994, they told Jennifer’s story on a segment of NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries.
Their biggest break came in 1995, when a couple found a black clarinet case and a backpack in a thicket behind Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill. They opened a textbook inside the backpack. “Jennifer Odom” was scribbled on the inside front cover.
Fingerprints on the items did not match the couple, Jennifer or her family members. The girl’s white pants, red sweater, black boots, brown purse and white Hooter’s zip-up jacket are still missing.
When Loydgren, 54, became head of the cold case division in 2014, he walked into the woods to see where Jennifer’s body was found. He’s returned to the spot, at the base of an orange tree, about a half-dozen times since. When he went back last month, the tree bore a single fruit.
Loydgren believes Jennifer’s killer is familiar with where she lived and where she was found. Maybe it was someone who became infatuated with her, he said, or “maybe it was just a crime of opportunity.”
The Sheriff’s Office has “multiple” people of interest, he said, “some that might be a little more interesting than others.”
Loydgren imagines one day driving down the lime-rock driveway to tell the family he has an answer to the question that has burned in them for 25 years: Who killed Jennifer?
“I want to be able to bring a name to them so they can finally know what happened to their child and know that somebody is answering for it,” he said. “Everybody wants that.”
• • •
A bulletin board still hangs above a vintage Broksonic television in Jennifer’s aqua-colored bedroom. On it: a black-and-white photograph of her middle-school boyfriend, a Valentine’s Day card from a classmate, a newspaper clipping about her waterskiing.
Under a window sits a blue bean bag chair Jennifer liked to lay on to read. A jar of seashells, tiny porcelain dolls and a few trophies for perfect attendance line a white shelf on the opposite wall.
Renee visits the room often. She has two granddaughters now, and soon the youngest will stay there on sleepovers. The eldest uses the neighboring room that belonged to the girls’ mother, Jessica.
Outside, under a massive oak tree, stands a post that still bears four names: Clark, Renee, Jennifer, Jessica. Nearby is a magnolia tree Renee was given the week her daughter disappeared. Every February, as the anniversary passes, she looks forward to the soft pink blooms that never fail to appear.
Time has taught Renee how to get through each day accepting what happened, but her grief remains real. She thinks of her daughter daily.
What she would be like now? Would she have had children? Had she gotten her chance at life, what would she have done with it?
Jennifer would have turned 38 this summer.
“Somebody robbed us of her, robbed the world of her,” Renee said. “Finding that individual will make it so nobody else gets hurt. But she can’t come back. I’ll never have her again.”